The word God refers to what many conceive to be the single ultimate, infinite source of being in the universe. This is in contrast with the word god (used in lower case), which refers to an immortal supernatural being with great powers. Most religions believe in some kind of God or gods, but these conceptions vary widely.
Beliefs about the Nature of God
Beliefs about the exact nature of the Divine, and the nature of the relationship between the Divine and humanity are defining elements of any particular religion, and the controversy about which religion, if any, holds the truth has endured from the beginning of history up to the present, and shows no sign of abating.
There are a number of different beliefs about God.
- Theism holds that at least one god exists, and usually refers to the belief in just one god. Theists hold that God is actively involved in the affairs of the world; for a discussion of the meaning of "God" in this sense, see: What is God?.
- Deism believes that one god exists, but that God does not intervene in the world, beyond what was necessary for him to create it (no answering prayers or causing miracles).
- Monotheism specifically refers to belief in one theistic god.
- Polytheism holds that there are many gods.
- Henotheism is a variation of polytheism. It says that there are many gods, but one of them is supreme and the other ones are only ancillary and don't have the same level of "god-ness". Some forms of Greek and Roman classical polytheism fall into this category.
- Monolatrism is a theological variant of henotheism. Its adeherents believe that many gods do exist, but these gods can only exert their power on those who worship them. Thus, a monolatrist may believe in the reality of both the Egyptian gods and of the god described in the Bible, but sees him or herself as a member of only one of these religions. The gods that he/she worships affects their life; the other gods do not.
- Pantheism holds that the Universe is God. Some forms of this are tantamount to atheism, while others are more theistic.
- Panentheism holds that the God contains, but is not identical to, the Universe. The Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, paints a panentheistic view of God; this view of God is widely accepted in Chasidic Judaism. This is also the view of Process theology and the Christian movement known as Creation spirituality.
- Manichaeism is the belief that there is both a perfectly good God and an opposing evil deity of equal potence.
- Animism is the belief that spirits exist in animals, plants, land features, etc.
On the other hand, some people find the concept of God meaningless or unnecessary:
- Atheism holds that no gods exist at all. This is formulated in different ways.
- Agnosticism holds that a god or gods may or may not exist, but we cannot know.
- Logical positivism holds that the word "god" is (cognitively) meaningless.
Jews, Muslims and some Christians are unitarian monotheists, while most Christians are trinitarian monotheists. Trinitarian monotheists believe in one god, but believe that this one god exists as three distinct persons who share one divine essence; this belief is called the Trinity. Unitarian monotheists by contrast believe there to be only one person in God; they consider trinitarianism to be in reality a form of tri-theism, not monotheism. Many unitarian monotheists (many Muslims, a few Jews) do not view trinitarianism as monotheism. Mormons hold that the trinity is made of three separate gods, one of whom is a spirit, and two of whom live on other planets in our galaxy; they hold that by following Church rule, humans can literally become gods of their own world. This belief is mainly held in the largest Mormon branch, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Western Monotheistic Concept of God
In the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is especially used to refer to the single such being held to rule over the universe. There is an ancient monotheistic tradition among these Western faiths that began with the first Prophet of Abraham (or instead, for some believers, that began with Adam), according to which there is one God, a Spirit who is the Creator Of The World and possesses the infinite qualities of Omnipotence (being all-powerful), Omniscience (being all-knowing), and (according to the majority of Monotheists) a concept which might be called Omnibenevolence (being all-loving). These traditions also conceive of the divine as a personal God, with a will and personality. These basic concepts are shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though, it is much embellished by each religion and sects within each religion.
Neopagan Concept of God
Neopaganism allows for diverse personal beliefs about the nature of God. There is little specific dogma. Most Neopagans hold a polytheistic, pantheistic or panentheistic belief, often with some elements of animism. Among Neopagans, and especially Wiccans, one primary model of God is the Horned God.
While on the surface Neopagans worship many gods, many practice a kind of monotheism, believing the many gods to be aspects of the One God.
Arguably, Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate (this, too, has many different names) are not conceptions of a personal divinity, though certain Western conceptions of what is at least called "God" (e.g., Spinoza's pantheistic conception and various kinds of mysticism) resemble Eastern conceptions of The Ultimate.
Gender of God
The term god is traditionally used to refer to a deity of the male gender, a belief especially common in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Traditionally the term used for a female deity is goddess, a term used today by such faiths as Wicca and Neopaganism. Others view the deity to be neither male nor female, in which case often "god" is used also.
Religions, and often different people within each religion, differ in what gender they believe God to be. One view, which is increasingly common today in Western religions, is that the deity is neither male nor female. This has also been the view of many within traditional Judaism and Christianity.
In Judaism it is a fundamental heresy to say that God has a gender; nonetheless, most of the names for God used by Jews are masculine. Most Orthodox and many Conservative Jews argue that it would be wrong to apply English female pronouns to God, not because God is of the male gender, but because doing so tends to draw attention to God as having gender, and also because the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) uses names that are grammatically masculine. In Christianity, one person of God, the Son, is believed to have become incarnate as a human male; however the other two persons of God are without gender, since they are not at all physical. As in Judaism, the other two persons (the Father and the Holy Spirit) have traditionally been referred to using male pronouns and have primarily been associated with male imagery; but some Christians today, especially those inspired by feminism, do not consider this tradition to be binding.
How God Communicates With Mankind
Many religions hold that God can communicate His will to mankind; in Judaism, Christianity and Islam this process is called revelation. The recipient of revelation is termed a prophet. The books of the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible; aka Old Testament) are held to be the product of revelation by Jews. Both the Tanakh and the New Testament are held to be the product of divine revelation by Christians. Muslims consider the Tanakh and the New Testament to be deliberately corrupted and falsified works; instead they affirm that the Koran is the only work that represents divine revelation. How revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is "divine" is a matter of some dispute.
Neopaganism teaches that communication from the gods is usually direct and experiential, and do not have the concepts of "scripture", "prophet" or "revelation" in the sense used by the Abrahamic religions. Divine messages are believed to usually be given directly to the person or persons for whom they are meant. In some traditions, a ritual sometimes considered revelatory is called Drawing Down the Moon, in which a high priestess (or sometimes High Priest) invokes the Goddess and speaks by Divine inspiration to an assembled coven. This ritual is most common in the Wiccan traditions.
Meanings of Omnipotence
Discussions about God between people of different faiths, or indeed even between people of the same faith, are often unproductive, in no small amount due to the fact that people use the same words but assign them different meanings. This situations occurs when some monotheists within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam state that God is omnipotent. In practice one finds that the term "omnipotent" has been used to connote a number of different positions. These positions include:
- God can not only supersede the laws of physics and probability, but God can also rewrite logic itself (for example, God could create a square circle, or could make one equal two.)
- God can intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics and probability (i.e., God can create miracles), but it is impossible--in fact, it is meaningless--to suggest that God can rewrite the laws of logic.
- God originally could intervene in the world by superseding the laws of physics (i.e., create miracles); in fact God did do so by creating the Universe. However, God then self-obligated Himself not to do so anymore in order to give mankind free will. Miracles are rare, at best, and always hidden, to prevent man from being overwhelmed by absolute knowledge of God's existence, which could remove free will.
- Omnipotence is sharply limited by neo-Aristotelian philosophers, who independently arose in Judaism, Christianity and Islam during the medieval era, and whose views still are considered normative among the intellectual elite of these faith communities even today. In this view, God never interrupts the set laws of nature; once set, they are never repealed, for God never changes His mind. These philosophers envisioned a connection between the realm of the physical and the intellectual. All physical events are held to be the results of "intellects", some of which are human, some of which are "angels". These intellects can interact in such a way as to seemingly violate the laws of nature. Since God Himself crated the universe and the laws therein, this is how God works in the world. However, God does not actively intervene in a temporal sense. It has been noted that this view veers away from traditional theism, and moves towards deism.
However, some monotheists reject altogether the view that God is omnipotent. In Unitarian-Universalism, much of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and some liberal wings of Protestant Christianity, God is said to act in the world through persuasion, and not by coercion. God makes Himself manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, but not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. The most popular works espousing this point are from Harold_Kushner (in Judaism). This is the view that also was developed independently by Albert North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, in the theological system known as process theology.
See also Scientists belief in God.